Manifesto of an Electric Guitar Builder
Posted on April 9, 2022 by Scott French
The previous entry in this four part series found me questioning some long held beliefs around the value of handmade instruments and making the decision to use all the modern tools available to me. This final entry outlines some of the other important choices that help shape my instruments.
There's a famous document in the software world that was authored and co-signed by many of the most influential developers in the country. It outlines what they believe are the most important elements when starting a new project. The thing I like about this document is the way in which they evaluate each point using comparison. Every line contains an item on the left and an item on the right. They consider the items on the left to be the more important focus, but make it clear that items on the right are still valuable.
"That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more."
I like this approach so I've used something similar here to outline the core elements that I value when designing and building my instruments. This isn't something I believe should be applied to all instruments, it's just how I go about things.
- Progression over Nostalgia
- Design over Materials
- Materials over Ornamentation
- Structural over Visual
- Response & Comfort over Sustain & Weight
- Local over Imported
- Iteration over Tradition
Progression over Nostalgia
There's no getting around it: guitar building and guitar buying and guitar playing are all endeavors often driven by nostalgia. Even cutting edge luthiers sometimes go to extreme high-tech measures only to reproduce the sounds of yesteryear. I myself have many instruments I still obsess over from my youth. I can't afford them all, but watch me try.
As a guitar player and fan I think it's important to look back at the music and instruments that have inspired us. But as a guitar builder I have to think about those pioneers in lutherie and know that even in those classic instruments they were always pushing forward, either with new and original designs or experimenting with materials and construction techniques. I'm striving to push my own boundaries, continue learning new techniques, and always expand my influences. Looking back is fine, but the real goal is to push my work forward.
Design over Materials
For me all the most interesting parts of an instrument start with the design. The collection of various elements and how they all work together to make something special is key. Material selection is important as well, but a quality design should be recognizable and cohesive regardless of the materials being used. In my eyes a lackluster design cannot be saved by fancy materials. Often times super fancy wood can even distract from a design by overpowering things visually. There are times when a really beautiful piece of wood can elevate an instrument from good to great, but far too often I see instruments that are quite mundane being slathered in figured maple and abalone. This is just adding to the problem in my opinion as powerful materials can highlight weak design instead of elevating it. There's nothing I love more than seeing a beautiful design executed with interesting materials in a thoughtful way. There are also times where beard hair and neon green paint are the most appropriate choices.
Materials over Ornamentation
As much as I believe quality design to be the foundation of a quality instrument, I can't overstate the importance of selecting the proper materials to support that design. My strong preference to to choose simple, functionl materials and let them them stand alone in highlighting the beauty of flowing lines found in most of my work. I avoid decorative flourishes almost entirely as that is just my personality. While some of my favorite builders use inlay and other ornamentation to enhance their designs, many of my favorite individual instruments from those builders are the very plain versions. I was a big fan of PRS in the nineties, but my favorites were always the solid colors or plain mahogany bodies. I find the unique grain variations in a nice one-piece body more interesting than the wall-to-wall figure of a book-matched 10-top. I also liked moons instead of birds so go figure!
Structural over Visual
This is a topic of wood selection. When going to select a board for a neck I look for something that is as close to perfect quarter-sawn as possible. I'm not against figure in a neck, but the higher priority is very little runout, very straight grain, and true quartered. If a blank I have on hand happens to be very nice but flat-sawn, then I will often rip it and rotate to make it 2-piece and quartered. Fingerboards should also be quarter-sawn. I've seen flat-sawn and even figured woods being used for fingerboards, but don't think that makes a lot of sense when it comes time for a refret. I can understand if you are producing a lot of instruments then you have to take what you can to fill stock, but for a very small builder like myself I can afford to be picky.
Response & Comfort over Sustain & Weight
For electric guitar bodies perfect grain is not a big concern. So instead I'm able to focus on another issue: weight! Two things I value in an instrument are comfort and responsiveness. For that reason I usually look for the lightest and most resonant boards available. For painted bodies I find basswood and poplar are often very light with a great tap tone. Neither are very nice to look at, but they're getting painted anyway. For figured woods and/or oiled bodies Claro Walnut is my favorite. It is not light weight by any stretch of the imagination, but that is where some aggressive chambering can help save a few pounds. Being able to use beautiful and local materials can sometimes mean making concessions elsewhere.
Local over Imported
Whenever possible it's my goal to work with materials and vendors that are local to me. In some cases I'm able to find lumber felled and milled very nearby my house. In other cases the closest "local" vendor for a part might be across the country. In general I just want to keep things as local as possible. Sometimes that means just doing more things myself "in house" and looking to local companies to support those efforts.
Iteration over Tradition
Iteration at its most simple is the concept of repeating a process over and over again. My goal with iterative design is to repeat the design process using slightly different criteria and feedback to evolve and improve my work. You can even repeat a process without any new variables and still end up with something slightly different and sometimes amazing... aren't brains awesome?
An example might be refining the body shape or a top carve over and over again when I think a lot of people would have stopped at "good enough". It often means making small changes that the average person doesn't even notice, but they certainly can feel the difference when all these small refinements are brought together.
This process has become quite self-referential in my work. Iterating on a design many times, finding some nice details, then taking those new elements and applying them to another design and doing another round of iteration to find further refinements. This all means there is no "done" and each individual instrument is just one step in a long line of iterations.